It’s been called the final taboo, condemned by every modern society. And yet cannibalism holds a peculiar fascination, whether it’s Jack the Ripper and Jeffery Dahmer defining evil for their times, or vampirism becoming a genre unto itself in popular art.

Yet most people know little about the history, cultural significance, and apparent health problems of cannibalism. For Listed this week, with Luka Magnotta and bath salt zombies making headlines, we clear up some myths and get to the heart of this unsavoury concept.

5. It has served an important role in human culture

Throughout human history cannibalism has taken many forms. Our ancestors may have exterminated their Neanderthal cousins by hunting and eating them. Countless societies – even, to this day, some African cultures – have considered the practice religiously significant. In pre-modern times the Wari tribe of Brazil practiced consensual endocannibalism out of respect for the dead.

It comes down to cultural relativism. Consider the apocryphal anecdote about a tribe of exocannibals, those who eat the flesh of their enemies, visited by a Western anthropologist. The tribe was shocked and disgusted when said anthropolgist explained his own society also killed en masse yet let the bodies go to waste.

4. It isn’t illegal

Due to recent publicized incidents we’re in one of those “moral panic” periods, but cannibalism is still so uncommon many countries don’t have specific laws against it.

Of course you probably committed some other crime on the way to cannibalism, even if you and your meal came to some sort of pre-dinner arrangement. The most curious and famous case is certainly that of German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who by all accounts found a victim willing to be killed and eaten. Since no evidence pointed to murder, per se, he was initially charged with manslaughter and given eight years. On retrial it was concluded Meiwes’ victim was too mentally unbalanced to legally “agree” to being killed, and the sentence was upgraded to life. Even so ...

3. It’s a good way to avoid prison

Cannibalism is such an extreme taboo anyone found to have practiced it in the context of other crimes can plead insanity with a fighting chance of pulling it off. Insanity (a broad term encompassing different degrees of guilt) is a much rarer defense than serial killer movies would have you believe, because it usually carries an indefinite sentence. In other words, you are locked up until your doctors say so. That could be a few years or the rest of your life.

Vincent Li, who stabbed, beheaded and ate a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus in 2008, was found not criminally responsible in a relatively speedy trial and has already been granted temporary, supervised visits to towns near his facility. Again, without a definite sentence he could go free at any time.

Japanese man Issei Sagawa shot and ate a Dutch student in 1981 while both were studying in France, yet served only two years in prison. After being extradited he spent another few years in a Japanese mental hospital before checking out in 1986 and has been a free man since.

2. It's a common theme in art and mythology

Cannibalism may be the biggest taboo to ever influence great works of art. It appears in Greek (Cronus) and Native American (Wendigo) mythology, and European folklore (Hansel and Gretel). It appears in works by Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus, as a form of revenge), Edgar Allen Poe (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, as an act of survival), and Herman Melville (Moby Dick, wherein the cannibal Queequeg is described as noble and strong-willed).  

Canadian artist Rick Gibson ate donated tonsils and a slice of testicle on an English street in 1988, and attempted the same stunt in Vancouver a year later. Charges were raised in the latter case for “publicly exhibiting a disgusting object” but dropped, and Gibson ate the slice on courthouse steps.  

Though not specifically condemned in the Bible it is used as a potent example of sinful behaviour in Deuteronomy 28:53-57, where Israelites are warned not to turn their back on God lest “You shall eat the fruit of your own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters whom the Lord God has given you.”

1. It’s very dangerous  

If this seems like a pro-cannibalism article, let us remind you that what limited research has been done suggests it is a terribly unhealthy idea for any animal, let alone humans. In the last century the American food industry has riddled our bodies with synthetic chemicals, for one, but otherwise there’s that whole problem of inter-species illness, i.e. the things animals catch from each other. Like mad cow disease, caused by cows forced to eat the remains of other cows.

Humans have their own mad cow-style disease called kuru, first diagnosed in cannibalistic tribes of Papua New Guinea in the mid 1950s. Like mad cow it is neurodegenerative. In layman’s terms, it turns your brain into mush.

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